Reasons to be cheerful (part 1)
It's 10 days out from the start of COP17, the UN Climate Change Conference 2011 being held in Durban, South Africa, and the level of anticipation can best be described as flaccid.
Two years ago many people were excited and inspired by the prospects of the Copenhagen conference (remember Hopenhagen?) and a year ago there was at least plenty of media buzz about whether anything could be rescued from the COP15 train wreck at Cancún.
This time around the lack of interest pretty much defines the outcome: the Europeans will be earnest, the BASIC block will be intransigent and the Americans will be irrelevant. There will plenty of attempts at grandstanding but few people will notice. The Kyoto Protocol, which has pretty much been a failure, will not be extended.
Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has given a stark warning in its World Energy Outlook 2011 that we are headed for irreversible climate change within five years. Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted by 2035 in the IEA 450 (parts per million) Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock and it says that, without further action by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035.
2017 is also seen as significant by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. According to its Long-term trend in global CO2 emissions 2011 report, “if the current trends in emissions by China and the industrialized countries including the USA would continue for another seven years, China will overtake the USA by 2017 as highest per capita emitter among the 25 largest emitting countries.”
Any chance of staying within the 450ppm budget to restrict the rise in global temperatures to 2º C by the end of the century will go up in smoke shortly thereafter. That will be a disaster for the world's human population, which has just passed the 7 billion mark, as well as many other species.
We find it difficult to feed so many people today but in 2050 there may well be 9 billion or more of us. By then we will presumably be at least up to our knees in tepid and contaminated floodwater as we fight over dwindling supplies of food and other resources. Having been hunted down for food to the point of extinction in the wild, only a few polar bears will exist in heavily guarded captivity.
Of course these Malthusian projections may not come to pass. After all, the prophets of doom have been getting it wrong since well before Thomas Malthus published his theories on population growth.
Take food production for instance. In Holland, one of the world most resource-efficient societies, horticultural engineering firm PlantLab has successfully prototyped a highly-automated vertical farming system that is, in many ways, better than nature. It believes we can grow fruit and vegetables, anywhere in the world and during any season, in half the time it normally takes while using 90 percent less water and no pesticides.